Big Jim McLain: John Wayne, Right-Winger, Communism-Hater

Along with his flag-waving war movies, Wayne made other political features that represented blatant anti-Communist propaganda. The first and possibly most notable of these was Big Jim McLain,” a Wayne-Fellows production released through Warner in 1952. Perfunctorily directed by Edward Ludwig, the film was written by Richard English, James E. Grant, and Eric Taylor.

Wayne plays a special agent for the House Un-American Activities Committee, who, along with fellow-investigator (James Arness) sets out to investigate the activities of a worldwide Communist ring in Hawaii. The Communists’ assignment is to halt vital shipping to Korea through a work stoppage engineered by a labor leader. An epidemic is also planned by a Communist bacteriologist.

Wayne’s character’s name, Jim McLain, had the same initials of Senator Joseph McCarthy, which was seen by many as more than a coincidence, since the star made the picture while he served as president of the Motion Picture Alliance. It is doubtful that other actors, less popular than Wayne, would have agreed to play such a role. It is one of his most propagandistic films of the 1950s, enhancing Wayne image as right-winger and anti-Communist much more than his political statements off screen. Indeed, Wayne believed that Big Jim McLain” helped the election of Senator McCarthy for a second term in 1952.

The screenplay was crude and blatant in its ideological propaganda. The Communists are depicted in the film as a bunch of pseudo-intellectuals and ruthless gangsters engaged in criminal activities, in which immoral party leaders callously sacrifice their fellow-members. Big Jim McLain” also uncritically praised the activities of HUAAC, without questioning its power to jail people for contempt of court, or its damaging effects on the careers of many artists it summoned. And it clearly reflects Wayne’s disgust with the way members of the Communist Party took refuge behind the Fifth Amendment. The movie ends with a question: What can be done with unpatriotic traitors who hide behind the very Constitution they aim to destroy.

Furthermore, the picture implies that the investigations are futile so long as the Communists can use the protection of the Fifth Amendment. At the end of the story, Wayne decides not to quit his work as investigator, despite serious doubts, because it is not in the Americanand Wayne’s–way to quit a patriotic mission.

Most critics’ reaction to the film was harsh. The New York Times’ critic Bosley Crowther found it hard to tell whether the film is supposed to be taken “seriously as a documentation,” of the work of the HUAAC, “or whether it is merely intended to arouse and entertain.” In its “direct, uncomplicated raid,” on the Communists, Crowther wrote, Wayne demonstrated that “the best medicine for a cowardly Communist is a sock in the nose,” based on his character’s attitude that “it is painful to think too deeply, and the fist is mightier than the brain.” Crowther concluded his review, noting: “The overall mixing of cheap fiction with a contemporary crisis in American life is irresponsible and unforgivable.” (New York Times, September 18, 1952).

Otis Guernsey of the Herald Tribune was even harsher, depicting Big Jim McLain” as “part travelogue, part documentary-type melodrama, and part love story, but pedestrian in all of these phases.” “A minor thriller,” he summed up the end result as “padding out with some rather poor commercials for our most excellent product of American democracy.” (New York Herald Tribune,” September 15, 1952).

The movie received, comparatively speaking, better notices in California than in New York. “Commendable as it is in purpose, and presenting as it does a new slant on the Red Menace,” wrote the Los Angeles Times, “this feature is unfortunately too sketchy in its dealing with its plot.” (Edwin Schallert, Los Angeles Times, August 30, 1952).

“For all its authentic backgrounds, timeliness of its topic, and the extremely good work from the actors involved,” noted the Hollywood Citizen News, “Big Jim McLain” is not much more than standard melodrama.” (Margaret Harford, Hollywood Citizen News, August 30, 1952).

The L.A. Examiner thought that Wayne brings to his role “an added potency, a sort of ‘I mean every word of this’ quality, which comes through like a beacon light.” (Kay Practor, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, August 30, l952).

Most praising of all was the Hollywood Reporter, stating that “the testimony of its success is the thoughtful anger it arouses in audiences,” and that it is “a successful motion picture from any angle.” (Hollywood Reporter, August 25, 1952). The movie was much more commercial that most anti-Communist films of the 1950s, grossing close to 3 million dollars in the U.S. alone. The other trade paper, Variety, praised Big Jim McLain” “timely subject and excellent dialogue,” which was ludicrous since the script’s vulgar simplicity was the film’s major shortcoming.

To appeal to mass audiences, the producers conceived of “Big Jim McLain” as “a gangster-action” film, but by equating Communism with terrorism, it “could have only reinforced the feelings of the very simple-minded,” as critic Allen Eyles wrote. Perhaps British critic Alexander Walker said it best when he noted: “As filmmaking, it was unconvincing; as propaganda, it was hysterical. By implication, it gave its nod of approval to informers and offered its pardon to Communists who confessed their errors.”

Cast
Big Jim McLain (John Wayne)
Nancy Vallon (Nancy Olson)
Mal Baxter (James Arness)
Sturak (Alan Napier)
Madge (Veda Ann Borg)
Dr. Gelster (Gayne Whitman)
Robert Henreid (Hans Conreid)

Credits:

Released by Warner
Running time: 90 Minutes

Production company: Wayne-Fellows
Produced by Robert Fellows
Directed by Edward Ludwig
Screenplay: James Edward Grant, Richard English, Eric Taylor from a story by English
Camera: Archie Stout